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Roger Goodell talks social justice but sidesteps questions about NFL’s anthem policy

‘That’s something that the ownership and I will continue to discuss and focus on as we feel it’s needed’

ORLANDO, Florida — NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spent much of a news conference Wednesday commenting on the NFL’s involvement in social justice issues — except those involving players’ future ability to protest during the national anthem.

On the final day of the league meetings here, Goodell trumpeted the landmark seven-year, $89 million deal with the Players Coalition, the main group that negotiated with the league on behalf of protesting players, to bankroll causes considered important to African-American communities. For months, Goodell and Troy Vincent, the league’s vice president of football operations, shepherded the deal, which was completed Monday.

Goodell expressed his eagerness to move forward with players to effect positive social change, noting that “the real focus of the meetings on the social justice was passing [the budget for the project], which we did unanimously,” Goodell said. “The last piece of our program, which we worked out with the Players Coalition, was to create a platform which to address the issues which the players have raised, that they were passionate about, and the ownership wanted to support them.

“We’ve really come together in a new program to support the players and to work between the teams and the players to address those issues in the community. That was the vast majority of our conversation the last couple of days.”

During the four-day meetings, however, the NFL’s anthem policy was on the table too.

“There was some discussion on the anthem,” Goodell acknowledged. “But only in the context of, ‘Is this the platform by which to help the players address these issues in their communities and make sure that we’re in a better place?’ ”

As players shined a light on racial injustice the past two seasons by protesting during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” owners became concerned about the potential for long-term damage to their iconic brand. At the league’s May meetings in Atlanta, owners are expected to vote on proposals that would prevent players from continuing to demonstrate on the sidelines before games.

One proposal with momentum, league sources have said, is to add wording to the game operations manual that would prohibit teams from being on the field while the song is being performed. Under the current rule, players are not required to stand for the anthem.

On questions about the anthem policy, Goodell did a great impression of a ball carrier sidestepping and stiff-arming would-be tacklers en route to the end zone.

“That’s something that the ownership and I will continue to discuss and focus on as we feel it’s needed,” Goodell said of the possibility of a major change to the policy.

“My focus has been almost entirely on listening to players, understanding better what they were protesting. We now understand that much better and have a deeper knowledge from our players, as well as going into the communities. Now we just want to make this platform extraordinary, working with the players.”

Goodell was more forthcoming on his thoughts about the Rooney Rule.

At the NFL combine in February, NFL officials and the group that helps oversee compliance with the rule agreed to continue discussions on proposals to improve inclusive hiring in the NFL. The Fritz Pollard Alliance is concerned about the Oakland Raiders’ handling of their head coaching vacancy as well as that only one black coach was hired for one of seven openings in the just-completed hiring cycle.

At the Super Bowl, Goodell said the NFL must do more to increase the number of minority assistant coaches in the pipeline, especially on offense, to have more candidates of color for head coaching positions. On Wednesday, Goodell offered a broader view of hiring in the NFL.

“It’s not just about the Rooney Rule. Our efforts never were,” Goodell said. “It’s an important element. It’s a fundamental aspect of that. How do we create the opportunities? How do we do everything to help train and give people the experience to advance their careers? And to do that with a tremendous focus on diversity so we have the best people performing at the highest levels in the league?

“That’s a core value of who we are and what we do. … Are we going to look at the Rooney Rule and see if we can improve that? Absolutely. Are we going to look at some of those training methods to give those coaches and [general managers] and officials and every other aspect of our operation better opportunities to expand their roles and to go to another level? That’s what we do very well. And I think we’ll look at all of that.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.